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I Am My Own Wife — Theatre Horizon

IammyownwifeInside300 Nuance, precision, and deliberate subtlety inform Charlie DelMarcelle’s touching, amusing, and charming performance as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, in Doug Wright’s 2003 solo piece, “I Am My Own Wife,” now, thanks to DelMarcelle and a clever design team, receiving a riveting production at Theatre Horizon.

     The way DelMarcelle uses his hands alone speaks volumes. Charlotte was a collector and preserver of objects, everything from her beloved phonograph cylinders to vintage furniture and the entire interior of a Berlin gay bar, original glasses and all. She has respect for things. DelMarcelle handles everything on Maura Roche’s perfectly judged set with stunning care, the fingers of both hands pressed together and using only the fingertips to lift or touch anything. Roche and prop designer Anthony Giruzzi borrow the original “I Am My Own Wife” designer’s idea of creating the chests and sofas and clocks Charlotte proudly mentions in miniature, and DelMarcelle is appropriately and winsomely delicate as he removes each exhibit from the lovely wooden box that nestlingly houses them.

      His hands and facial expressions endow Charlotte with the femininity she cultivated for her life. From an early age, Lothar realized he preferred being a girl. Encouraged by his aunt, who wore men’s clothes as she tended her farm in Mahlsdorf, a suburb that would become an intergral urban part of modern Berlin, Lothar became Charlotte but never used makeup or artiface to live as a woman. As is evident from photos of the actual Charlotte, she was content to wear a simple black dress and string of pearls while living her life proudly, but without flash, as an unapologetic, undaunted transvestite. As Wright’s play shows, Charlotte is a woman who will have her own way, who will do what she likes, and will not consider much what others think or have to say about it.

      DelMarcelle conveys that independence by affecting only the feminine traits that Charlotte embraced, the simple women’s clothes, the softness of voice, and a predilection for rare and beautiful objects. Although Charlotte is a part of Berlin’s gay community, kept underground during the Nazi and Soviet eras that sadly covered most of her life, her personal sexuality is barely discussed. As Wright’s title tells us, Charlotte famously says she is her own wife.

       Like Charlotte, DelMarcelle does not hide his masculinity. His posture, walk, and general aspect remain male. It is when Charlotte is coy or shrewd or making a joke that the expression on his face takes on a womanly cast. The actor’s wit and thoughtfulness about choosing the perfect look for the specific moment add to the overall brilliance of his performance. Even when playing one of the other 30 or so characters with which Wright populates “I Am My Own Wife,” Wright among those characters, DelMarcelle is spot on with the precise look and tone of voice. He can change characters on a dime and make each one distinct and individual, even in the course of a dialogue. When he has the chance to play another character in depth, such as the imprisoned antique dealer with whom Charlotte has a friendship and partnership, DelMarcelle plays the role to the fullest, showing his remarkable depth and versatility as a performer. Kudos must also go to “Wife” director Kathryn McMillan who, in addition to her flawless staging, must have acted as DelMarcelle’s mirror as he constructed his portrayal of Charlotte and coached his lightning quick transference to other roles.

       Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is  more than a novelty. She is stunning in her ability to survive two of the most repressive and savagely prosecutorial regimes while using her wits and standing her ground to remain the individual she preferred to be. Totalitarian governments, whether they be fascist, like the Nazis, or Communist like the Soviets who occupied and influenced East Germany, and East Berlin, where Charlotte lived, insist on conformity, on towing an official line. Cooperation and collaboration are rewarded. Difference, in lifestyle or regard to official dictates, is severely punished, often with longterm incarceration or death. As Lothar Berfelde or Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the character DelMarcelle portrays would be anathema to either brutal force that governed where she lived. “I Am My Own Wife” is more than a picture of a wily individual who forged her own path in life in spite of social mores and possible prejudices. It is a tribute to a woman who defied two of the most disgraceful, despicable movements the Earth has witnessed and did so on her own terms, relatively unscathed. Wright and a Newsweek reporter, John Marks, bring up story lines that do not redound well towards Charlotte, particularly one about her cooperating with East Germany’s foul secret police, the Stasi, but  while that revelation may diminish Charlotte a tad (or more) in some people’s estimation, it pales in perspective to the tenuous, tenacious instinct for survival Charlotte personifies when faced with two odious governments that can claim sway over her life and even take her life. Charlotte’s is a story of courage that goes beyond any specific act she committed to stay free and live as she chose. She is a testament that individuals count more than governments (no matter how creepily governments encroach on our lives, witness an Affordable Care Act that impels me, a single man with no dependent women, to pay for maternity coverage), and a treasure because she outwitted true villains and did, for most hours of most of her days, exactly as she liked.

       DelMarcelle shows every aspect of Charlotte’s character, even her dodging of Wright when he confronts her about her relationship with the Stasi and alleged participation in some of her friends’ demise. We also see Charlotte as the gracious preservationist, the host and guide of the Grunderzeit Museum, home and repository of furniture, decorative pieces, books, and music of an era that predates Nazis or German Communists. In this role, she is as delicate as some of the artifacts she is showing. Her voice is even and full of appreciation for the items she has collected. She is inviting and enthusiastic. These will remain traits of Charlotte throughout DelMarcelle’s performance.

       Charlotte has an answer for everything, and DelMarcelle gives her a knowing nod, a thinning of the lips, and a glint in her eye before his character launches into an explanation or introduces a new strain to their conversation.

       Many topics have to be covered — the acceptance Lothar receives from his mother and aunt to become and remain Charlotte, the difficult relationship all three women have with Charlotte’s father, Charlotte’s murder of her father and imprisonment in a Nazi juvenile detention facility, Charlotte’s early escape from prison as Soviet troops approach at the end of World War II. Charlotte’s love of music and furniture, Lothar’s being excused from serving in the Nazi army, Charlotte facing up to Soviet dictators, Charlotte’s dealing with the Stasi, Charlotte’s honors after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviets were kicked out of Germany, and Charlotte’s life in Sweden after she abandoned Berlin and her museum following the Stasi controversy.

     They are all addressed, and they are all engrossing. DelMarcelle wins us to Charlotte’s side even as we must imagine Charlotte, who died in Berlin in 2002, would have mesmerized us.

       “I Am My Own Wife” is the fourth play to appear in Theatre Horizon’s new space in Norristown. One hopes this complete, glowing production will be the harbinger of plays to come.

         Charlie DelMarcelle has been a laudable member of Philadelphia’s theater community for a couple of decades. As Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, he finds the role that sets him apart from the many competent, consistently working actors he counts as colleagues. DelMarcelle takes a lot of care with his portrayal, but he conveys Charlotte’s self-awareness without betraying any self-consciousness of his own or his character’s. DelMarcelle captures Charlotte’s charisma and whimsy while also showing her cunning and evasiveness, all traits necessary to live and survive as she did.

      Maura Roche deserves praise for more than making the setting of Charlotte’s home realistic and evocative of the character’s tastes and love for fine things. The door from which Charlotte enters and which serves as a background for the play, is beautifully crafted to recall Grunderzeit tastes. Around all edges of the set, Roche has placed rubble that remind one of debris from the Allied bombing of 1944, particularly the Russian splatter bombs, and the remains of the  Berlin Wall that was demolished so gloriously in November 1989.

     David Todaro’s lighting helps to create moods and isolate various settings when DelMarcelle is playing characters other than Charlotte. In a play that depends so much on recordings and other sounds, Larry Fowler did a lovely job of keeping everything straight and evocative. Charlotte’s simple outfit does not present much of a challenge for costume designer Katherine Fritz, but kudos are in order for the transition outfit Fritz gives DelMarcelle when he plays the antique dealer in prison.

     “I Am My Own Wife” runs through Sunday, November 24, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14 and Monday, Nov. 18, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $20 and can be ordered by calling 610-283-2230 or going online to www.theatrehorizon.org.

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